An estimated 24,600 Augusta University alumni live in the Central Savannah River Area. Augusta and the surrounding areas have a lot to offer business owners and employees alike — especially younger alumni interested in either working for or starting a small business.
Three AU alumni in particular — Cole Watkins, T’Shawn Carter and Amy Richardson — have flourished in the Augusta area after graduation, using their degrees to help launch their own small businesses in three unique areas.
What sets Augusta apart?
Augusta and the surrounding area offer plenty of opportunity to jobseekers, both those with aspirations to own a small business and those simply looking for steady work. The potential for jobs and the safe family atmosphere in the area have helped businesses begin and grow, and it’s a huge selling point, according to Dr. Rick Franza, dean of the James M. Hull College of Business at Augusta University.
“This is a great place for businesses to set up shop because there are plenty of benefits for businesses,” Franza said. “Our location is close to two ports — which is obviously critical for both bringing in supplies and shipping final products. Augusta is also right on the interstate, a rail system runs through Augusta, and we’re not that far away from a big airport. Augusta is in a really nice location and we’re still growing as far as adding jobs and people.”
Augusta is home to about 22,500 manufacturing jobs. The Savannah River Site, which produced a job boom between the 1960s and 1990s, is projected to begin another hiring boom prior to 2032. One of the latest reasons businesses and young professionals are flocking to the area is the recent growth in the cyber and computer industry highlighted by the Georgia Cyber Center.
“Jobs in cyber have seen a big boom recently, and Augusta is going to continue to be fertile ground because of cyber and how important it is to every element of our way of life,” Franza said. “It’s important to businesses, but it’s clearly critically important to all of our utilities, our financial system, and even our health care system. Everything is run with zeros and ones these days, so you have to keep information secure.”
And then there are smaller, niche areas for businesses, particularly in the entertainment industry.
Augusta is home to some of the best jobs in hospitality. The Masters is the crown jewel, but there are also the Augusta GreenJackets and the many events put on by the Augusta Sports Council — which includes three Augusta University alumnae in CEO Michelle Naval, Marketing Coordinator Savanna Gonzales and Community Affairs Coordinator Monica Martinez-Canty.
“Obviously, our hospitality sector is pretty big, even though it is highly centered on the two weeks around the Masters and the Augusta National Women’s Amateur,” Franza said. “I think there’s plenty of opportunity to continue to add more in this area. I look at Augusta’s growth as similar to places like Chattanooga, Tennessee and Greenville, South Carolina. I think there’s a lot of room for growth here because I think this area has potential to draw young professionals in their 20s and 30s who are looking for a good work-life balance.”
Cole Watkins (Class of ’12): Cole Watkins Tours and Kayak Rentals
With Augusta sitting on the western bank of the Savannah River, multiple boat ramps around Clarks Hill Lake, and the Augusta Canal, it is easy to see how Cole Watkins’ love of the outdoors could present the opportunity for a great business venture: Cole Watkins Tours and Kayak Rentals.
Watkins, a 2012 Augusta University graduate, was named the Hull College of Business Outstanding Young Alumnus this year. He turned a newfound hobby into a successful business over the last decade-plus.
Even through the COVID-19 pandemic, Watkins has watched as his “side hustle” has grown from a series of projects he completed while studying business at then Augusta State to a business that attracts customers from both near and far.
“The plan was to run the company as mostly a weekend thing and have everything where I just meet customers at the river, and now we’re in our 11th year. Even though now I’m 33 and I have a wife (Ashley Watkins, Class of 2012) and two kids, there’s very little free time, but every free day that I have is spent on the water. It’s been a very fun experience and I’m glad I decided to run with it.”
Watkins’ business has thrived even in recent years, to where out-of-towners are calling from all over the southeast saying they saw his business on social media. Even if he or his other guides can’t take a group on a tour, his main goal is to make sure out-of-towners have a great experience in Augusta, so he’s not hesitant to point them in the direction of another “rival” outfit or to even lend some of his 28 kayaks to those companies.
“I think each kayak company understands that we each have their own specialty, their own niche. CWT is the primary company for guided tours and also the Stallings Island route, where guests can see the wild donkeys and goats. We tell our customers about the rich history of the island and let people feed the animals from their kayaks. People always have a good time on that trip.”
The Stallings Island trip with Watkins’ outfit is part of a larger project that the Columbia County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which includes 2017 AU graduate Tera Bonsell, has introduced in recent years: The Serene 18.
The Serene 18 is 18 square miles of waterways stretching from Clarks Hill Lake, down along the Savannah River and into Richmond County via the Augusta Canal.
“The Columbia County CVB put together the Serene 18 and it has really taken off,” Watkins said. “It’s really well put together, and it features a passport where you get a stamp each time you go on one of the five adventures. For example, the Stallings Island route is a donkey and the Betty’s Branch route is an otter. Once you collect all five stamps, you take it to the Columbia County CVB office and get a free T-shirt. It is a really fun challenge that is bringing tourists to the area. We are proud that we can show them a good time on our beautiful river during their stay.”
T’Shawn Carter (Class of ’16): Pledge Fitness
Like Watkins, 2016 graduate T’Shawn Carter has seen his side hustle, Pledge Fitness, grow in recent years, partially thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that saw people begin to focus more on their health and fitness.
Carter, whose 9-5 job is tech support manager at Automatic Data Processing, is also a Natural Pro Men’s Physique competitor and personal trainer who offers both in-person and online training, as well as programs aimed at weight loss, mass gain and healthy eating habits, to name a few.
Originally from Springfield, Massachusetts, Carter grew up in Marietta, Georgia and knew from an early age that he wanted to own his own business.
“It’s one of those things where some people don’t know what they want to do when they grow up, but I’ve known since I was a child,” Carter said.
“Around my neighborhood, I was the ‘Candy Man.’ I had everything from a snow cone machine to a popcorn machine. I’ve always been interested in running some sort of business, even at 8 years old. I didn’t necessarily know what a profit was, but I knew that if I spent $10 buying cups and I knew I needed to sell everything I had for more. As you get older those same beginner techniques just expand and I have just stuck with it.”
Carter started his college career at Savannah State University before transferring to then Augusta State along with his girlfriend, now wife (Gabbi Carter, Class of 2018, Psychology), who transferred to Augusta from Columbus State University. The couple wanted to find a campus where both could pursue their majors together. Carter ultimately graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Management in 2016.
Not only did they earn quality degrees, but they also found a supportive community that both challenged them and introduced them to lifelong friends. Carter attributes some of his drive to succeed to having a strong support group in the form of his fraternity brothers through Omega Psi Phi.
“It definitely gave me a different support system and a different viewpoint of being held accountable. There were a few professors in the business program that challenged me mentally to be prepared, and then I met some of my greatest friends through my fraternity. The best part about it is we push each other to be great. We’re not competing with each other, but nobody wants to be that friend that dropped the ball.”
While he has always known he wanted to one day own his own business, being a personal trainer and bodybuilding coach is a fairly new idea.
“I originally had no interest in personal training. I have always been an athlete and enjoyed playing sports, but it wasn’t until when I was working out with a buddy of mine at the Wilson Family Y in 2016, when I even thought about it,” Carter said.
“I was helping him because he had a whole bunch of clients at the time and he used to run group sessions, so I would help him from time to time. He came to and me and said people just loved my energy. Then, maybe a few months later, the Y needed a group class instructor, so my buddy gave me the money to get the needed certification and I started teaching the class, and then everything just took off from there.”
Amy Richardson (Class of ’16, ’17): Richardson Professional Solutions
Amy Richardson is a name that many on campus, particularly around the Hull College of Business, may recognize.
Richardson, who started out as a graduate assistant at Hull before transitioning to business engagement coordinator, earned both her Bachelor of Business Administration (2016) and Master of Business Administration (2017) from the college.
After departing the university in 2019 to focus on raising her family, she launched her own business, Richardson Professional Solutions, in January 2020.
“It was something that was supposed to be a side hustle, trying to bring in a little bit of extra income, and it quickly took off,” Richardson said.
“That summer I had to make a decision whether I was going to bring on an employee, which was really scary, or if I wanted to start telling potential clients, ‘No.’ So, I decided to bring on my first employee, and we grew really quickly to a team of about 12 where I was leveraging part-time employees and contractors, but we’ve really scaled things back down to a core team of about seven.”
Richardson Professional Solutions provides office services — desktop publishing, social media management, bookkeeping and time management to name a few — to small business owners in a variety of fields, including higher education, manufacturing, food and beverage and nonprofit.
Richardson says the best part of owning her own small business in Augusta has been the ability to not only draw on her previous networking skills, but continue to build new and better relationships.
“I have really enjoyed being able to both strengthen and leverage my network,” Richardson said.
“Being the business engagement coordinator for the business school at Augusta University, I was out in the community a lot and I really built a strong network, and so now I’m able to do a deep dive in that network and remake those connections. That’s how I’ve been able to hire my entire team, through my network. I haven’t done any external candidates as far as building my team. I just think it’s really been invaluable, and I know that being a student at AU, they’re always talking about networking and how you’ll never get a job without networking. It helps to know people and it’s really true as far as not only building my team but also building my client base.”
One of the best networking tools for Richardson has been the small-town feel in and around Augusta that is embodied at Augusta University.
“There’s a great opportunity to be connected with our community. I love being engaged with the community and going to Chamber events and supporting local business. I enjoy the close connectedness, the small-town feel that our very big small town offers. The university is unique in the sense that it is a large institution, but you are not just a number.
“Having been not only an undergraduate student, but also a graduate assistant and then an employee with the business school for many years, it’s very unique that the faculty and staff that are there really care about you. They know your name and they can say ‘Hi’ to you in the hallway, or you could have coffee together. You run into them at Chamber events and you might not be able to have that experience somewhere else. I really enjoyed the closeness of the sense of community that there is at AU.”